Defenders of photo ID laws regularly cite public opinion polls that show widespread support for their arguments. Yet these polls reveal no such support, and they prove nothing about this new restrictive legislation because the polls’ questions cover a far broader range of IDs than the actual laws accept as proof of identity. Many of the new laws do not accept a college student ID, for example, or an out-of-state driver’s license; but the polls drawing favorable responses encompass such IDs. As always, the devil is in the details. When Republicans won full control of 21 states in 2010, they promptly adopted measures to restrict and deter voting by minorities, the poor and the young, all key components of the Democratic base. One of the most effective measures requires voters to show one of a restricted set of photo IDs issued by either a state or federal government. Government studies have shown that these laws can prevent or deter significant numbers of poor and minority voters from voting. By 2015, 13 states had adopted what the National Conference of State Legislatures considers a “strict” voter photo ID law, including seven Southern states formerly subject to federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act.
The Texas photo ID law and recent polls in Texas offer a telling example of the disparity between the laws’ actual content and what poll respondents can assume are in them. The only photo IDs that qualify in Texas are a specially issued Texas voter ID or personal ID card, a Texas driver’s license, a Texas gun license, a U.S. passport, a U.S. citizenship-naturalization certificate or a military ID. Texas does not accept a student photo ID or a photo ID from any other federal, public or private entity. Although it does allow a religious accommodation and a disability exemption — almost all states do — the Texas law does not exempt voters who are elderly, indigent or in a nursing home, as do other states.
In October 2014, a federal trial court ruled that the law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling was upheld on appeal in August, but has yet to be enforced, pending further proceedings.
Texas public opinion polls on voter IDs are not as narrowly focused as the law. In 2011 and 2012, they asked only about a nonspecific “government-issued photo identification,” and in 2014, about “Texas’ voter identification law which requires people to present state-approved photo identification in order to vote.” Under the 2011 and 2012 polls’ description, a photo ID from any federal, state, county, city or other government entity could qualify. The 2014 question seemed even broader. It appeared to include any photo ID that Texas has approved, whether the ID is from Texas or elsewhere, and even if it was issued by a private organization, like a college or professional association.